A Certain Kind of Loneliness: Thoughts on Bri Hurley’s Making a Scene
One day in 1982, I was outside the legendary rock club CBGB when I was approached by Adam Yauch and Kate Schellenbach of the Beastie Boys. Hardcore bands used to put out their own records and sell them for a couple of bucks outside CB’s, and the two of them were trying to get me to buy their EP, Polly Wog Stew, which, in a scene blighted with some pretty horrible music, was notably terrible. I begged off. They persisted. I said no. They persisted. Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t like your music.’ Yauch was momentarily stunned, then he retorted, ‘Oh yeah? Well, your hair looks stupid.’
This is a pretty good indication of the creative level the Beasties were operating on at the time, especially when considering that my hair, worn in the same way I’d had it since grade school, parted in the middle and finger-combed back, wasn’t in any way interesting enough to be a source of derision. I would have forgotten the story if Yauch hadn’t become famous, but it’s still strange to me that after spending several of my teenage years at hardcore shows and especially CB’s weekend matinees, I only have three clear memories from the entire period. First was the Yauch encounter. Second is how once, at a Dead Kennedys show, my friend Boz forced his way through a ferocious tangle of moshers, attempted to jump on the stage, slipped at the very edge, and fell backwards headfirst. Just before he hit the floor, I grabbed him at the waist and we stood there, him in a handstand, the bottoms of his boots under my nose, and no one making any attempt to help us as I inched backwards, trying to make our way out of the swirling mess. And third, the time I walked into CB’s after buying records at Sounds on St. Mark’s Place. Someone asked what I’d picked up. I showed him the new Kraut album, and someone else said, ‘Oh, is that what the posers are listening to?’
Bri Hurley’s Making a Scene is the kind of book fans called legendary because it went out of print soon after its first print run, cost way too much even if you managed to find a copy, and featured pictures from a crucial time in our lives that few of us had thought to photograph. Subtitled “New York Hardcore in Photos, Lyrics & Commentary Revisited 1985-1988,” it’s a collection of pictures and testimonials documenting the hardcore punk scene during those years, specifically the weekend matinee shows at CBGB where if you were, say, a depressed sixteen year old kid from a New Jersey suburb, you could go, be with other misfits, listen to music, and think yourself part of a community. I had only become aware of Hurley’s book with its recent reissue, and while my time at CB’s pre-dated the book’s by a few years, I remember the period as one of the happier times of my youth. So I bought it, somehow hoping to find myself inside.
The pictures are mostly snapshots of young people on the pre-gentrified Bowery. They sit on the sidewalk, lean against lampposts or shuttered storefronts. They’re talking, smoking, hanging out. Two typical pictures, both titled “June 7, 1987”, have rows of kids slouching against parked cars, arms folded or dangling, a few mildly animated, most blank, some stoned, many heavy with weariness. In “Fall 1986” more are sitting, the faces blank, some mysteriously bemused, all placidly waiting. In the section titled “The Stage”, we’re taken inside CB’s, to bands in performance, guys screaming into microphones or looking at their instruments as if not sure what they were holding, much gritting of teeth, twisting of face, and here and there, a smile.
I recognize the looks. But by the time these pictures were taken, I didn’t belong there. And every time I turn a page, it seems less and less strange that my clearest recollections are ones that show that I never really did.
But if you were a kid with any sort of artistic inclinations, it seemed like something else. No one moves to a place like Marlboro for cultural diversity. You move there to be ‘safe’, and as a result, it wasn’t the kind of place that provided outlets for creativity. There was Movie City 5 and the East Brunswick Mall, both about a half hour up Route 18; there was the Steinbach’s Mall in neighboring Manalapan; and a little further down Route 9, there was the Pond Road movie theater. As kids, we played in the holes dug out as foundations for homes in new neighborhoods.
Later, there was a Battlezone at the 7-11 in Manalapan, about an hour’s walk away. And there was the Skateway 9 roller rink, the metaphor of spending our Saturday nights skating endlessly in circles perhaps too obvious for comment. You played Little League and soccer. You ate pizza or Chinese food in one of the strip malls. And to get anywhere, you needed to drive. For years, my most creative outlet was in trying to figure out how to get a ride to and from a mall.
Even then, it felt like a ridiculous thing to complain about; boredom is a weird luxury, and a guilt-laden one, when you consider you’re enduring it under central air conditioning, in a bedroom that isn’t crawling with vermin, or in a stocked kitchen. But still, I was the type of kid who sensed that my identity lay somewhere outside of suburban norms and mainstream culture. Not knowing what exactly I wanted, let alone how to find it, was crushing. My innate shyness turned into ceaseless anxiety. I slept all the time, except at night; by age fifteen, I was three years into what would become a fifteen year stretch of insomnia, and in my final years at high school my grades plummeted as I kept falling asleep during my classes. I associated drinking and getting high with all the people I hated at school that drank and got high, so I did neither. Instead, I spent most of my time in my room reading Harlan Ellison and used science fiction anthologies from the library’s twenty-five cent rack, especially stories about the horrors of mindless conformity or of lone explorers adrift in the infinity of space.
When I just couldn’t read any more, I passed out, or stared at my ceiling for hours, or looked out my windows at the stillness of our backyard and wondered what all the other kids were doing, the ones at school who weren’t wondering, obsessively, what the hell was wrong with them for not being happy like the other kids. I was disaffected, depressed, and directionless. I was seething with unchanneled anger, frustration, and a maddening inability to express myself. And, I was afraid to talk to girls. In other words, I was perfect for hardcore.
In Marlboro High School circa 1980, your social sect was defined by the albums you cherished. If you were a stoner (we called them burnouts), you listened to Master of Reality. The unwavering bourgeois listened to Pieces of Eight (although Get the Knack had a brief, intense heyday at their house parties). Everyone listened to The Wall and Led Zeppelin IV. And if you were one of the half dozen or so people who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, you listened to London Calling.
London Calling was not an album, it was a gateway drug to a secret world. Here’s how the process went: first, Todd Weiss sees you eating alone in the school cafeteria, remembers you from Hebrew school, and invites you to his table. You wind up at his house, where he plays you London Calling, and you start to realize that there had been amazing things happening while you were sitting in your bedroom listening to the Beatles, the Stones, and The Who. Then you got really, really excited because suddenly, there was another world out there, in lands beyond New Jersey – London, or wherever The Clash were from – that was full of possibilities, and music was the portal to it. But, you had to go find it. And in the early 1980s, there were only two ways of doing that: college radio and flea markets.
So me and Todd or my friend Boz would get together and one of us would hold a dipole antenna and contort ourselves while another tried to tune in WRSU at Rutgers, or WPRB at Princeton, because they played all kinds of stuff you never knew existed, and when music finally emerged from the hiss, the guy with the antenna froze in place and we taped the antenna ends to the paneling and sat there and listened, rapt, trying not to move, as if air displacement would screw up the precarious tuning. Then we went every weekend to the Englishtown or Collingwood Flea Markets. We’d been doing that anyway, but now, instead of Fantastic Four comics, Famous Monsters of Filmland, or SF paperbacks, we were seeking out records in dusty bins and milk crates, first all the other Clash albums, then Never Mind the Bollocks, then anything that could conceivably be characterized as punk. Then when we realized it all kind of started with the Ramones, we found their first album, then the rest of the Ramones’ albums, and we checked our endless list of bands we’d heard on the radio, and endured the looks of complete confusion when we asked for Sham 69 or X-Ray Spex or the Stranglers, and we bought old issues of Crawdaddy, Creem, and Rock Scene for interviews with Strummer, Rotten, any Ramone, or anybody that might clue you in to something you’d never heard before. It had to be something you’d never heard before, because hearing new things was the way out (or the way in, we weren’t sure). Then we’d keep mumbling, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ when they referenced bands like the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls (‘Jesus,’ I had thought, ‘these are the ugliest chicks I’ve ever seen’), and then we found out about CBGB, about how Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, Television, Suicide, every cool band that ever existed, it seemed, played there, then we went back to the flea markets and trolled the record stands trying to find everything, anything.
Once, my father went to London for a business trip, and I asked him to bring back “Anything by the Sex Pistols except Never Mind the Bollocks, anything by the Buzzcocks, and whatever the number one album is.” He brought back Flogging a Dead Horse, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, and Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier. When he removed them from his suitcase, having carefully packed them between his clothes, I have never loved the man more, and for weeks after, in an extremely small pocket of Marlboro, I was a god.
My world was Trouser Press magazine and a record player. I listened, read, and sought, continuously. I learned how to hear differently, to hear more, to listen, and I sat around with my few like-minded friends as we rhapsodized over our discoveries, and hopelessly tried to articulate what we hated about everything else. We had discovered punk, and something in us was freed. For the first time in our lives, we felt a special kind of hope.
And then we realized we had missed all of it.
It was a brutal trip, in two ways. First, it was a dismal, numbingly mundane routine. The bus was usually crammed, smelled of unwashed bodies, pungent lotions and grooming products, the view an endless repetition of off-ramps and concrete overpasses, punctuated by patches of marshland, the Port terminals, and the Bayway oil refinery, a hideous landscape of contorted pipe and rusting metal pillars spitting fire and smoke and a toxic reek that could be smelled for miles. Want to know where New Jersey gets its reputation as a putrid industrial wasteland? Take the bus from Monmouth County to Manhattan. Like many breadwinners in Marlboro, my father did that commute five days a week, and woke up pre-dawn to do it. There wasn’t one time I took that ride where I didn’t feel terrible for him having to endure it.
And then there was the shock of the city itself. I had started reading The Village Voice for the club listings and eventually got around to reading the articles, hoping it might eradicate some of my naiveté, but not much of it made sense to me, and it provided very little preparation for what I was going to see in the East Village. For instance, I remember reading something about the St. Mark’s Bathhouse and thinking, ‘I don’t get it. Why would a guy, in the middle of the day, want to go somewhere and take a bath?’ And none of those music articles mentioned the unnerving omnipresence of the Johnny Thunders doppelgangers, impossibly skinny guys in black jeans and dyed black hair with broken postures, leaning forward as they loped living-dead style through the streets in all directions, clinging to their guitar cases.
And nothing could have prepared me for the fear and pity I’d feel when I saw actual drug addicts, who appeared to be everywhere. To see for the first time that specific kind of haggardness and filth, the sudden twitches and spasms hampering the most basic physical tasks, is to feel a sort of sadness that hadn’t entirely come through in all the Burroughs and Selby novels I’d been reading. To see this kind of squalor was to understand that there were people existing on unimaginable planes, worlds I was far too cowardly to explore past reading about and observing from a safe distance. I was also far too ignorant to understand its relationship to the musical utopia I’d imagined.
But no matter my confusions, there was, every time, the elation of CBGB. Yes, we had missed punk, but now there was hardcore. What was the difference? Well, like punk before it, the musical aesthetic was very post-Ramones, meaning that a lot of very untalented people seized on the idea that if you played a few chords fast enough and kept even a tenuously steady beat, you’d wind up with something resembling a song. Picture scores of bands playing “Blitzkrieg Bop” five times as fast, distorted, and with no sense of melody. This sounds a bit mean-spirited, but it isn’t; many bands would have taken it as a compliment. The main goal of the kids who hung around the hardcore scene was to be a part of the hardcore scene, and the most minimal means of inclusion – attempts at playing, just being there – were not only acceptable, but welcome. As a result, the quality of music varied wildly. For every one of the truly great bands in hardcore – Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains – there were hundreds of others whose music sounded like their guitarist’s fingers had accidentally formed a chord and, realizing the happy accident, strummed it as hard and repetitiously as he could before it was lost. Most didn’t play songs. Usually, they were one-minute sonic assaults. Three-chord tantrums. More often, one-chord tantrums. We loved music, but needed ferocity. Every weekend at CB’s featured the roar of frustrated kids who were finally being heard, and if that’s what you wanted to hear, talent was a very secondary consideration.
For a while, it was great fun. Punk’s main contribution to dance culture was the invention of the Pogo, which essentially entailed jumping up and down. For guys like me who found that too challenging, there was now slam dancing, a swirl of bodies that took place in front of (sometimes on) the stage, the dance itself a sort of accelerated skank, but with tighter fists, exaggerated stomping, and horrifically grimacing faces. It could get violent and was often little more than a communal wrestling match – some guys wore spiked wristbands, chains, and thought that punching someone in the back of the head was an act of choreography. But having been to many a bar mitzvah, I knew how to safely navigate a dance floor packed with flailing white people. And for all the limitations of the style, there was a powerful work ethic, the DIY aesthetic, where kids were booking a few hours of studio time at makeshift studios like the former glass shop at 171 Avenue A, making their own records covered in flimsy cardboard sleeves that they had designed and glued themselves, and selling them out of boxes in front of CB’s. Bands were mostly self-promoted, and the hardcore gig flyer became an art form in itself, cut and paste collage photocopies that were as raw and urgent as ransom notes.
But it was soon apparent that for all the talk of personal freedom and non-conformity, there was a sense of insularity at the matinees that felt madly confining. The cultural relay that had started in Todd’s bedroom stopped on the Bowery. When Joe Strummer mentioned Otis Redding in an interview, I went off trying to find Stax/Volt records. When Johnny Rotten mentioned Can…well, forget it, you couldn’t find any of that in Englishtown; but when I read that he loved reggae, I went off scouring crates for Augustus Pablo or Dennis Bovell (the solo recordings, of course). But all I remember hardcore guys recommending were other hardcore bands. The closest thing to a recommendation outside the genre came from sullen guys wearing Motorhead t-shirts.
And once these limitations became obvious, I started to get lost in the dubious philosophies that riddled the scene. For instance, there was an obsession with authenticity, with refusing to compromise. Honorable ideals, I thought, but those words were always vaguely defined, and it’s not that hard, if you really search, to find corruption in any sort of success. So, depending on who I was chatting up on the sidewalk between sets, any band could be considered a sell out, for a variety of reasons – they play too many gigs, they charge too much for their EPs (maybe $3 instead of $2), or, worse, they’d changed their sound. Craft? Ambition? Growth? These meant a band was selling out. I couldn’t understand the philosophy, and no one could ever convince me that a group calling themselves, for instance, Rudimentary Peni, was just in it for the money.
There was the Straight Edge movement, which stipulated a no drugs/no drinking lifestyle, which sounded great to me, since I was already living it. But then I found out it also advocated against sex, which I thought took the purity thing too far. And, everyone hated Ronald Reagan. His image – unconvincingly brandishing a gun, tending to Bonzo, smiling in front of mushroom clouds – popped up on flyers all the time, and was a universal object of disgust. There were plenty of reasons to hate Reagan, but they were never specified; he was usually, “Just an asshole, man.”
Even as a juvenile, I found it all very juvenile. And disappointing. I had initially admired everyone’s attempt to define what was meaningful to them, but the attendant credos so were narrowly conceived, that everyone was breaking into factions that felt uncomfortably close in spirit to the cliques back home. Very quickly, it had all become Lord of the Flies. I wasn’t sure what I had been hoping for, but it wasn’t that.
At first, it hadn’t bothered me. I was just glad to be in a place where people weren’t listening to Styx. I’d nod and agree and turn back to the music and felt inspired by how everyone cared. About what, exactly, was unclear, but at the beginning, there was a powerful sense of everyone trying to find their way, and of unity, and at the best of times, the crowd at CB’s felt like a tribe huddling for warmth. The immediacy was thrilling. The moments were exhilarating. The problem was what to do when the moment was over.
After a few years of matinees, I was still hungry for what was next. But at CB’s, there was no ‘next’. Hardcore didn’t lead to anything else. For all of the involvement, energy, and self-sufficiency, there was little hunger for progression, whatever that meant, or for acquiring the means to get there, whatever those were. But for me, this was the point of a scene, to figure them out. For others, I suppose the point was something else entirely. But after two years, it felt like I was in the same place I’d started, as if we’d all listened to “God Save the Queen” too many times, had taken the “No future” refrain too much to heart, and figured we might as well just roar and rage at the hopelessness of it all. It wasn’t enough anymore. So I went home.
Even allowing for the years between my last visit to CB’s and Hurley’s pictures, I just don’t recognize the place. Evidently, all those East Village denizens I’d viewed from a bewildered distance – the junkies, the destitute, the irretrievably lost – were also, to some degree, hanging out at the club. I don’t remember it, and I can’t believe how fearful and obtuse I’d been, probably telling myself that the grubbiness was all some kind of theatrical affect, and that having come from a suburb packed with neurotics, the weirder types at CB’s were just variations on what I was already used to. But then I read the quotes, often mundane testimonies about drug use, street life, broken homes, and how for many of them hardcore was a salvation, and I finally start to understand something about the teenage me. Alexa Poli’s reflections read like a one-page encapsulation of what so many experienced:
We were a mix of kids. Street kids, runaway kids, suburban kids giving parents their best shot at a coronary. I was kind of different. I’d been on my own since I was 15, living at various friends homes (one of whom turned me on to the Bad Brains and changed my life forever). One of those friends lived on 1st Avenue and 10th Street, a neighborhood I was not unfamiliar with, having bounced around NYC most of my young life.
By this time I was completely submerged in hardcore, buying every record I could afford while still commuting back to my Queens H.S. I walked past the kids in the park, feeling that I didn’t belong with the hardcore ‘elite’ – those that made the music I so loved, until one night I just plopped myself down on a bench. Music was blaring, spliffs were being passed and the first person who spoke to me was Roger Miret of Agnostic Front. He saw how totally involved with the music I was, sat down and talked to me, introducing me to everyone. Next thing I knew I had a quart in my hand (no 40’s back then) and 50 new friends. These friends became my family in no short order, big brothers and sisters, little sisters and boyfriends, and one who would father my beautiful daughter.
…To this day, I consider about 50% of those people as close enough to be my blood family. I recently suffered a serious accident, and my ‘family’ set up a fund for me and the visits haven’t stopped (and I live upstate now). I got a visit in the hospital from a girl from the scene that I lost touch with and hadn’t seen in 28 years. That’s how strong our bonds are. May they never break.
I envy her. I cannot remember the name of one person I met at the matinees. I had absolutely no idea that fraternity existed on this level, and now I see that I didn’t belong to the hardcore scene, I just didn’t want to belong to Marlboro. The price paid for my kind of non-conformity was a certain kind of loneliness that was alleviated every weekend, but my sojourns in the city were just another form of escapism; once a week, I went to hardcore shows, just long enough so that I could endure the other six days of my week. I had been the most happy in seeking, and enjoying what I’d found. In my room. Alone. In NYC, I went to shows, and bought records, but I was just a consumer, a carpetbagger. I contributed nothing. And now I’m wondering if maybe my hair did look stupider than I thought.
So, no, I’m not in any of these pictures. The book that showed my real scene would have photographs of Todd’s room, the shelves of monster masks draped over foam heads, the stacks of L. Sprague de Camp paperbacks, the Frank Sinatra and Hall and Oates records mixed in with the punk. Or my friend Larry’s bedroom, one wall with a Meat Puppets poster hung next to a Duran Duran poster, another wall covered with flyers for hardcore shows featuring bands I’d never heard of, the New York Thrash and yellow Bad Brains ROIR tapes lying on top of a turntable cover, the Flex Your Head album playing underneath. Or the inside of Larry’s car, where one of us would hold his boom box on our lap and we’d drive up and down Route 9 and play whatever tape we were currently obsessed with, Fear, the Damned, XTC, over and over and over. Or Boz’s brother’s room, where we could watch MTV, or the forty acres of vendor tables at Englishtown, or the inside of an NJ Transit bus, or the view from my bedroom window, the empty yards, the trees, the sky, the vast swaths of oppressive nothing that probably only ever existed in that lonely teenager’s imagination.
And it could finish with facing pages, juxtaposing the time Todd wore a Sid Vicious t-shirt to school and some idiots pelted him with apples plucked from trees growing near the parking lot, and the time five years later, when I was twenty-three and dating a Marlboro High senior, when a teenager, his head half-shaved, was pumping our gas, and I said I felt bad for him, for all the crap he must be experiencing living here, looking like that, and she said, “Actually, that’s the senior class president.”
In the photo “Agnostic Front, August 24, 1986” the singer, Roger Miret, leans into the lower corner, as if being pressed by unseen forces, falling out of frame. His mike is pointed at the audience as if trying to pass it off. An audience member’s hand is held up as if shunning it. There’s dignity in the earned exhaustion, and it makes me think of its exact opposite, the one picture of me at CBGB.
I was in a band. Larry played guitar, a guy John (big T. Rex fan, also introduced me to Mott the Hoople) played bass, Boz played drums, and I sang, which really meant that I screamed Larry’s lyrics as loud as I possibly could, and then I would collapse on the floor with headaches so severe I could barely think, while Larry and John would kick me, insisting I get up to start the next song.
Larry had found us a manager, Frank, who, at his first appearance at band practice, proposed that we name the band Hard Core, and that our logo be an erect penis. We were all very excited about the prospect of having a manager and didn’t want to blow it, but I was able to squeak out that perhaps we could reconsider the name, or at least the logo.
Other names were bandied about. Someone proposed Society’s Victims. I reminded them that we were practicing in Boz’s basement, in a huge, gorgeous house on a couple of acres of land in one of the country’s most desirable neighborhoods. So, someone suggested S Victims, which I thought was horrible, but acceptable by comparison, and when people wound up asking what the S stood for, I’d say, Studebaker, salami, Saskatchewan, or anything (except Society) that started with an s.
We played at CB’s on a showcase night, along with five or six other unknown bands. We waited backstage, and couldn’t believe we were backstage at CBGB, surrounded by the walls where our heroes had marked their space, a chaos of band stickers, layers of indecipherable graffiti, marker and spray-paint scrawls. We wondered if our asses were occupying the same spots that the asses of the legendary had. Richie Stotts, the guitarist from The Plasmatics, came to visit Frank. He said hello, and we sat there mute, star-struck. Then we went on and, evidently, someone took pictures.
I’m wearing a white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, jeans, some kind of a spiked wristband, my hair combed back (but still defiantly unstupid), gripping the microphone, screaming into it. It’s hilarious, in that embarrassing follies-of-youth way, but not because of the outfit – the only thing more anti-fashion than the way hardcore guys dressed would have been complete nudity. It’s the general look, as if someone had said, ‘Act like a singer,’ and clicked the shutter. And, God, how I just want to pull that kid aside, give him some aspirin and a throat lozenge, tell him he’s no Roger Miret and to look somewhere else for a place to belong.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Coffin Factory, and will be in upcoming editions of Locust and Anemone Sidecar.